Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun


Compensating for historic wrongs: intergenerational justice and rectification

I’ve been reading a very interesting paper on environmental groups whilst on the train down to Cornwall. Part of the paper is devoted to a discussion of the Environmental Direct Action Group (EDAG), whose political statement argues that the north should repay its ‘ecological debt’ to the south. [Edit: a chat with the author of the paper in question has revealed why I didn’t recognise the name EDAG – it’s a pseudonym].

The idea that current generations should repay debts owed by their forefathers is a common one; it occurs in environmental discourses, in discourses around colonialism, and, of course, in political theory literature. Nozick, for example, includes a principle of rectification for past unjust acquisition of property, and this principle stretches back through the generations. Nozick doesn’t really specify how best to resolve who owes whom what, and he admits that that’s something of a gap in his theory. I dislike those sorts of gaps, so when the paper I’ve been reading made passing reference to this principle of intergenerational restitution I stopped for a moment to consider.

Imagine your great grandfather stole some land from my great grandfather. Later he gave it to his son – your grandfather. Later, your grandfather planted some apple trees on the land, and cared for them for many years. When your grandfather grew old, he gifted the orchard he’d created to his son. Your father took the apples from the by-now flourishing orchard and sold them at a local market. He became a successful apple seller. Later, your father sold his stall at the market, and gave the profits, together with the orchard and his accumulated savings, to you.

Now, recall that the land was initially unjustly acquired from my great-grandfather. If the rectification principle holds then what do you owe me? At the very least we might think that you owe me the plot of land. Given that land ownership typically also comes with usufructory rights – rights to enjoy its fruits – we’d probably also want to say that so you should pay also pay me the value of the trees and apples grown on it while your family possessed it. But, it doesn’t seem right for you to also pay me the value of the labour that your forefathers put into growing those fruits; their labour was not itself unjustly acquired, even if the object of it was. Thus, compensation owed to me is the value of the initially unjustly acquired land, plus the value of what it produced, minus the value of the labour that went into that production: land + fruit – labour.

That all looks fairly straightforward, but sadly I think things are a good deal more complicated. Why should I think that you owe me anything because of the actions of your grandfather? After all, he was responsible not you. We don’t think people are responsible for the actions of people they have even met! And, surely any compensation is owed to the initially wronged party, not to his descendants. You’ve not wronged me, so why do you owe me? How can you owe me for a wrong done to my great grandfather by your great grandfather?

One response might be to claim that I’ve been deprived of a good I otherwise would have had. Whilst you are not to blame for the initial theft, by nevertheless holding on to what isn’t really rightfully yours (since your great grandfather was never entitled to it), you still wrong me. If a thief steals a my car, and gives it to a stranger, that stranger should return it to me – they have no right to keep it, it’s mine. All of that looks plausible. However, there’s a big problem lurking because  a presently existing thief stealing my car is not like a thief in the past stealing my grandfather’s car.

The problem lies in thinking that I own what was stolen from my great grandfather: that I would otherwise have come to own the land had it not been for the theft. The difficulty becomes apparent when we consider what’s known as ‘The Non-Identity Problem’ (from Derek Parfit). The Non-Identity Problem draws our attention to the fact that very small variations around the time of a conception result in the baby conceived growing up to be a different person than they otherwise would have. Anyone who has watched Back to the Future or Quantum Leap (I’m revealing my age here) knows the risks associated with altering the timeline even slightly! What this means for the problem above is that your great grandfather’s act of theft could have changed the circumstances of my grandfather’s conception. As a result of your great grandfather’s theft the ‘I’ who would have otherwise benefited from a good is not the same as the ‘I’ that presently exists. In fact, it rather seems that I owe my existence in part to your grandfather’s theft and so I should perhaps be grateful to him. On top of this are a series of built-in assumptions that my great grandfather would have otherwise gifted the land to his son, and he to his, and he to me, and that they each would have profited from it, that they would not have sold it, gambled it away, ruined it, or given it to someone else. Those are a lot of assumptions to make. All in all, it doesn’t look promising for the principle of intergenerational rectification.

I started thinking about this problem with the opinion that presently existing people ought to make recompense for the wrongs of their forefathers. Now it seems that whilst the north has no just entitlement to the benefits gained at the historical expense of the south, neither does it owe the presently existing south anything by way of compensation for those benefits. I’m still tempted to think that it would be good for the north to compensate the south, but I’m minded to think this is out of a sense of benevolence rather than because anything is actually owed as a matter of justice. This is quite an unsatisfactory and unexpected conclusion, and goes against my intuitions rather, so perhaps someone out there can provide a better one in response?